Relative Strangers

The StrangerFeatures

My childhood has been surrounded by stories, whose casts and settings are as real and fantastical as any fairytale.

Masterfully orchestrated, these stories have been brought to life by the people that have survived decades to tell them, people I love dearly but will never truly understand — my grandparents. A South Korean surgeon trapped on a North Korean farm; a razor-sharp loan shark of a mother in Haiti; a sibling-favoring geography teacher in South Korea; a proud doctor in Montreal.

These strange and unknowable people are my ghosts, characters in unvisited places and unknowable times. These timeless moments are the fragments of my history, woven for me in that haphazard place between the real and the imaginary, the past and the present. These stories are the legacy of my grandparents. I am a stranger to their worlds, worlds that survive only in their memories. The people who once inhabited their lives becoming ghosts that inhabit mine.

My grandmothers: one Haitian — Grandmama — and one Korean — Halmoni. Each from a wildly different culture and world and yet so similar to one another — smart, headstrong . . . rude to waiters. My Korean grandfather — Haraboji. Quiet, sweet, burps at the dinner table, and loved at the community gym where he has spent two hours, every day, for the past three years. And my Haitian grandfather — Grandpapa, who died in 2007, joining the rest of the ghosts in an almost-remembered place in my mind.

When I think about my grandparents, I remember birthday cards, and lazy trips to Florida, bright memories alive with yellows and vibrant greens and blues. However, this is all I can truly know of my grandparents. While I know their stories, they do not belong to me. These surreal memories are the only ones I can produce.

I cannot remember because I have not experienced the hunger and shame my grandmother must have felt as a little girl in Korea, a country then occupied by the Japanese. The torment of bare, burned-in-summer feet, frozen-in-winter feet. I will never know the joy she felt sucking a piece of hard candy under her tongue for hours and hours because she didn’t know when the next piece would come. I wonder what it would have been like to know that girl, mumbling — or giggling — in muted Korean, suffering the endless indignities of childhood.

I cannot know the satisfaction my Grandmama felt when she explained indignantly to my cousin’s fifth grade class that she did not in fact come to North America on a boat, but in first class, on a plane direct to Montreal from Jacmel airport, leaving behind stockings and evil nuns for a whole new life, full of thieving roommates and seemingly endless boyfriends until she found the one.

I will never replicate the pride my Grandpapa knew when he displayed my dad’s perfect report cards to an American school principal. A doctor who worked in a poor neighborhood, providing healthcare to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Who moved from Haiti to Montreal to Pennsylvania, who ensured the best quality life for his family and many others — the definition of the American dream.

How can I feel the grit of my grandfather, whose story is so picturesque? A South Korean cardiovascular surgeon captured by North Koreans who escaped to a farm in the countryside, exchanging medical care for shelter for six months, biding his time until he could return to his home and to my grandmother. How can I know his pain or terror? How can I feel his desperate drive to be free?

I try to justify my ignorance of my grandparents’ lives. I call them and try to live up to their expectations. I tell myself that although I was not at my grandparents’ wedding, or present during what must have been the laborious days of Haraboji’s time as a surgeon in the South Korean army, that I matter more to my grandparents than those they once knew. However, even this selfish thinking is a painful reminder. There is so much that I will never know. It is because of the time never spent with them, the memories never created with them, and the struggles never shared with them that I am a stranger. Yes, it’s true that we are all human. How different can one moment of joy, or pain, be from another?

"There is so much that I will never know."

The answer is that when you are the stranger, fleeting mentions of the past become precious; they are rich paints to add to the yellow, blue, and green that I already have. But even then, the painting is incomplete. How can I know the color of my grandmother’s joy? The shade of my grandfather’s grief? The true pain of the stranger is that, however lyrical and rhythmic the narratives, however sparkling and witty the characters, the time is past. Although they are my grandparents, I know less of their stories than the childhood friends or annoying coworkers of whom I imagine they reminisce.

I remember my Grandmama once telling my brother and me about a maid she had growing up in Haiti, whose parents couldn’t afford to raise her. Initially I was dismayed. I had been enchanted by the idea that my grandmother grew up poor. I know so little of my grandparents’ stories that, in my mind, I had filled in the unknowns, combined my knowledge of my grandparents with my own world, unable to distinguish the stories from the movies. My grandmother finishes this story with the fact that she no longer knows anything about this maid-girl from Haiti. She makes it seem like they were friends, that this younger girl doted on her but, sometimes, knowing my grandmother, I doubt it. My grandmother never saw this girl again after leaving Haiti, doesn’t know if she went back to her family, or got married and had children, or if she’s still alive.

It is because of the time that has already sculpted their lives that I am a stranger. My grandparents and I have vastly different perspectives on life, simply because they have lived in a time that will never be regained. I am the person looking forward, and they are the people looking back. I can’t imagine managing all the memories that accumulate over a lifetime — I can’t even remember my history homework. All the friends and enemies, the triumphs and losses, are foreign to me. They have known and touched hundreds and thousands of people in their lives and can let go, but me? My life is uncertain, with more secrets than answers, more hopes than triumphs.

My grandparents, the people to whom I owe my life, both literally and metaphorically, have given me memories and experiences, culture and history. They are my people, and I am theirs. We are strangers to each other, yet because I respect and love them, we coexist and have a strong fruitful relationship. Although I can never truly know them, I can love them. Although I will never understand them, I can become part of their stories, and they will become part of mine. They are strangers to me and yet, someday, if I have grandchildren, I’ll tell them about four people, four strong people from different parts of the world, each with struggles and triumphs. I will make sure that my grandparents’ ghosts will live on in my stories long after they are gone. Although we are strangers I will do my best to make sure their love and faith in me and the world was not misplaced.

William Lohier will be a ninth grader next year. He likes saying the word colloquially, and eating pie, especially peach. He plays cello and piano and thinks babies are really cute but even more creepy. He also likes mangoes, and being awesome.

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